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Why Won't Oscar Face the Music?

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Music awards at the Oscars have always been a bit dicey, but the past few years have been flat-out confusing. The Best Original Song category has gotten ludicrous, with 3 out of the 5 nominees coming from the same film -- and then all 3 nominees lose, most likely because the vote gets split among the three songs. Then there's Best Original Score, where two of the most interesting scores of the year -- There Will Be Blood and Into the Wild--were ruled ineligible. What's going on here?

Jonny Greenwood's score for TWBB -- both brilliant and divisive -- was ruled out because it contained material Greenwood had previously written for a BBC program, and Vedder's score for Into the Wild was considered too "song-based" to be a "score." Of course, Vedder did not receive a nomination in the Best Original Song category, and Greenwood's not going to get squat, despite his "score" (the Academy is forcing me to put it in quotes) being one of the most interesting and daring "scores" in years.

I can understand the Academy's refusal to consider Greenwood and Vedder in legal terms, but not in artistic terms. I don't care where this music came from -- these are fantastic scores, pieces of music that take their films to new aesthetic heights. Technicalities aren't sufficient explanations for why they aren't award-worthy.

But rather than write a screed against the Academy, I thought I'd propose a solution. I'd like to suggest that the Academy create a new Oscar category: Best Adapted Score.

Best Adapted Score would be an award much like Best Adapted Screenplay. This award would recognize musicians, music supervisors, and directors who repurpose previously recorded material in a way that represents a superior achievement in filmmaking. In other words, these filmmakers are using pre-existing music not to sell a soundtrack album, but as a storytelling device. In these films, the total film is greater than the sum of its parts: the music becomes transformed by its association with the film, and the film becomes a greater artistic statement thanks to this music.

Past films that would have made great candidates for what I'm proposing would be Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining; Mike Nichols' The Graduate; Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction; Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers; Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude; David Lynch's Blue Velvet; Woody Allen's Manhattan; and, of course, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

These films all use previously recorded music. Sure, tons of films do this, but these films transform the music they use. For instance, Walter/Wendy Carlos' Moog makeover of classical music in A Clockwork Orange is a unique achievement, as is Kubrick's startling use of Penderecki in The Shining. The Trent Reznor-produced Natural Born Killers soundtrack is a postmodern collage of media-saturated madness that is so tied to the look and style of the film that the songs used in the film actually lose something when returned to their original context. And Lynch's reworking of 50s bubblegum pop into the American nightmare is as frightening as Allen's, Nichols', and Ashby's work with Gershwin, Simon & Garfunkel, and Cat Stevens is transcendent.

This is original work being done, despite its derivative origins, and if the Academy is able to discern greatness in literary adaptation, they should be more than capable of recognizing the same in musical adaptation.